Book Review: 'Fossil Future: Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas—Not Less'

'Fossil Future' a timely warning—but is nature worth more than its contributions to human flourishing?

Book Review: 'Fossil Future: Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas—Not Less'
Alex Epstein is an energy expert and author of “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels,” a New York Times bestseller. (Courtesy of Alex Epstein)
Nathan Worcester

It’s easy to see why the legacy media has placed a target on Alex Epstein’s back: The “Fossil Future” author fights to win.

In the weeks leading up to the release of his latest book, The Washington Post planned to attack Epstein by labeling him a bigot. When Epstein learned about it beforehand, he struck first.

"Instead of doing the conventional thing, which is to wait for a hit-piece to drop and then react with ‘damage control,’ I am doing the just thing and publicly, preemptively attacking The Post for this despicable act of journalist malpractice," he wrote in a March 29 Substack post.
Epstein marshaled support from podcasters, alternative media, and his high-profile allies in the national debate over energy, including ecomodernist Michael Shellenberger.
The dust-up is a case study in Epstein’s strengths and strategy, which are both on full display in “Fossil Future." On June 4, he told The Epoch Times that he wants to persuade those who disagree with him and to “give more ammunition to people" who are likely to see things the same way he does.

Forceful Arguments

And so, in clear, forceful language, Epstein makes arguments that verge on what Biden administration climate adviser Gina McCarthy might consider "disinformation":
  • Fossil fuels are vital—indeed, irreplaceable—to human flourishing, both now and in the future.
  • Renewables are not enough to meet our needs when it comes to electricity, let alone the remaining four-fifths of energy consumption.
  • Finally, and most controversially, the sky is not falling, and the world is not about to end.
When it comes to human-caused climate change, which Epstein doesn’t dispute, he argues that any of its probable costs must be considered alongside its potential benefits. Even if the costs greatly outweigh the benefits, a one-sided account is neither accurate nor fair.

The downsides of fossil fuels must also be weighed against their upsides—upsides such as  the dramatic improvements in wealth, life expectancy, and other metrics of well-being within what Epstein calls a “human flourishing framework.”

Thus, even as atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have increased, storm death rates have continued to fall. Similarly, and contrary to what many may assume, wildfires in today’s California are likely far less common than in the pre-Columbian era.

Epstein argues that the recent uptick in devastating burns has less to do with greenhouse gases and more to do with poor policy, as people who approach nature with an anti-impact, preservationist mindset have allowed too much fuel to accumulate in wildlands.

Fixing that problem is easier than it might otherwise be, thanks in part to mechanical brush clearers and other fossil-fuel-powered technologies that serve as force multipliers of human labor.

“You take this idea that the world’s going to get on fire, off the table,” Epstein said.

Inexpensive Energy

Epstein is most convincing when he shows us the extraordinary advantages of inexpensive, readily available energy—the sort of energy that has, since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, come overwhelmingly from fossil fuels.

While he’s optimistic about potential advances in nuclear energy, scalable geothermal energy, and other alternatives to fossil fuels, Epstein concludes that the natural abundance, natural storage, and natural concentration of hydrocarbons make them uniquely powerful and hard to supplant.

On balance, we owe significant health and wealth to fossil fuels. (Though, notwithstanding Ben Franklin’s “healthy, wealthy, and wise” formula, recent events suggest our comfort may have eroded our wisdom; good times make soft targets for Utopian schemers.)

Cheap and easy energy has enabled us to realize undreamed-of living standards. The benefits don’t end with humans; in a wealthier world, people can better afford to care for the natural environment than they could at earlier stages of industrialization.

The absence of the energy we now take for granted would suppress our potential for further technological advancements. In the ultimate tragic irony, it would leave us much more vulnerable to any rapid shifts in climate, not to mention other unpredictable stressors.

Think About It

Here’s a thought experiment: Imagine if mankind faced an immediate existential threat—say, a huge space rock on course to collide with the Earth in 30 days. Would we be likelier to survive with ample, dispatchable, low-cost energy or with scarce, intermittent energy sold at boutique prices?

The question answers itself, though the reader is invited to imagine a ragtag crew of ’90s action movie misfits aiming the world’s largest medieval catapult at an oncoming meteorite.

Epstein also scores points against many of the media’s designated experts on global warming. He points out that past predictions from Bill McKibben, James Hansen, and similar figures have overstated the scale and likely effects of climate change. But it seems unlikely that Biden climate adviser McCarthy, Big Tech, and other supposed arbiters of the truth will accuse the McKibbens of the world of spreading disinformation, misinformation, or, most Orwellian of all, "malinformation," defined by the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency as “based on fact, but used out of context to mislead, harm, or manipulate.”
When then-candidate Joe Biden said that “we choose truth over facts,” he could have been describing the establishment’s attitude toward its imperfect “climate prophets.” A secularized vision of the apocalypse, blamed entirely on a secularized conception of human sin, seems to be the “truth” after which they eternally seek.

Valuing Nature

Epstein’s clarity of vision owes much to his training as a philosopher. He’s a follower of individualist thinker Ayn Rand. She, in turn, was influenced by Aristotle, who introduced the concept of "human flourishing" (eudaimonia) to Western philosophy.

Like Epstein, Rand wrote about the potential consequences of extreme, politically motivated environmentalism. Her 1971 essay “The Anti-Industrial Revolution” envisions a world in which concerns over pollution lead to massive restrictions on technology, disease runs rampant, economic opportunity is limited at best, and life has been reduced to a lower level.

Epstein focuses on what he sees as the anti-human perspective of many fossil fuel critics. He argues that their opposition stems from resistance to any human impact whatsoever.

In one subchapter, “Eliminating Human Impact,” Epstein describes what he sees as the right orientation toward nature:

“From a human flourishing perspective, we embrace massive, pro-human productive impacts on nature, such as building homes, roads, and factories. We want to eliminate or minimize only anti-human, self-destructive impacts on nature, such as pollution or the needless destruction of the most beautiful parts of nature.”

Elsewhere, Epstein suggests that scientists who question the morality of animal testing are motivated by “the moral goal and standard of animal equality,” which, he argues, exceeds the value for those scientists of saving human lives.

In both cases, the value of nature and the ascription of equality to animals, he oversimplifies. Some who voice concerns over animal testing may well be aiming for animal equality. That's more likely the case if they oppose all animal testing on principle. But moral consideration of non-human suffering, along with the willingness to impose some limits on animal testing, doesn’t always reflect some underhanded attempt at morally equating humans with animals.

Few would argue that killing a mildly irritating flea is morally equivalent to killing a mildly irritating cat. Many would agree that chimpanzees deserve more humane conditions than laboratory mice—though, again, that call for humane conditions doesn’t necessarily imply that they want an end to all testing on primates, let alone all animal testing as a whole.

Likewise, when it comes to valuing nature, some who voice opposition to fossil fuels may well oppose human impact, or humanity, as such.

Yet an assessment of nature that only considers human impacts and doesn’t clearly attribute value to nature itself also seems lacking. (“There's a whole book to be written about how to think about nature in a pro-human way,” Epstein told The Epoch Times in response to these concerns.)

Other traditions seek a different balance between nature and humanity. In Genesis 1:26–28, God grants man “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” That stewardship needn’t imply that nature exists solely for the benefit of man. As in all just hierarchies, obligation flows both downward and upward, and both man and the living things for which man is responsible are created beings.

Epstein’s rosy picture of the energy sources he favors can also raise doubts, even among those sympathetic to his perspective. Thus, while he discusses at length the real and significant benefits of nuclear power, he omits some potential downsides.

One example: the costs of environmental remediation at uranium mines, which have already run into billions of dollars. (In the Epoch Times interview, Epstein argued that the downsides of uranium mining are relatively insignificant.)

In the end, however, Epstein’s latest book stands out more for what it adds than for anything it lacks. “Fossil Future” is a much-needed corrective to an increasingly one-sided debate about how we power our world. For those of us on Team Human, its success so far looks like a win.

'Fossil Future: Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas—Not Less'

By Alex Epstein

Portfolio, May 24, 2022

Hardcover: 480 pages

Nathan Worcester covers national politics for The Epoch Times and has also focused on energy and the environment. Nathan has written about everything from fusion energy and ESG to Biden's classified documents and international conservative politics. He lives and works in Chicago. Nathan can be reached at [email protected].